The PV Q&A: Janelle Monáe on Performing With the San Francisco Symphony, the Influence of Metropolis, and Working With Erykah Badu

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BY Tom Lanham

Fritz Lang’s classic German Expressionist film Metroplis is a parable for our modern Occupy Wall Street times. In it, a repressed, working-class proletariat labors long hours underground, keeping the power flowing to a glossy, hi-tech city above, until a female robot sows some Machiavellian dissent, courtesy of a mad professor named Rotwang. Unlike our Congress-stalled, Wall-Street-rewarded times, thought, there is heartwarming resolution to the movie’s conflict, and everyone vows to get along more peacefully in the idyllic future. This, of course, provided the perfect aesthetic launching pad for Kansas City-bred neo-soul stylist Janelle Monáe, who’s used the Metroplis premise to frame a continuing three-record saga, Metroplois: Suite 4 (The Chase), The ArchAndroid, and an upcoming The Electric Lady, already preceded by a thumping Erykah-Badu-assisted single, “Q.U.E.E.N.” (whose otherworldly video, featuring Monáe as a preserved anarchist artifact in some futuristic rich-folks’ museum, is a cinematic stunner in its own right). In previewing this third installment for her time-travelling protagonist Cindi Mayweather, the singer is slightly cagey, playing her thematic cards close to her perpetually-tuxedoed vest. But here the 27-year-old offers PureVolume a few tasty tidbits of—ahem—what the future holds.

PureVolume: You just played with the San Francisco Symphony. How on Earth did you get that hookup?
Janelle Monáe: Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. They reached out to me! And I’m totally honored. I think they heard the music on The ArchAndroid and Metropolis and they really loved the arrangements that we had done on the albums. And they just wanted to collaborate. And it’s always been a dream of mine to work with a symphony or orchestra. So I met the conductor and the symphony itself, and they were all just amazing people.
Your life has entered this whole new phase, or plateau now. For instance, you were featured on a Grammy-winning song last year, the omnipresent “We Are Young” from the group fun.
Totally. It was a great song to be a part of. But you’d have to ask them how thy found me—I was told that they were really big fans of The ArchAndroid, and they reached out two times to get me to be on “We Are Young.” And I was on tour and hella busy, but I listened to it and loved it and just said yes. So there you have it.
And things keep getting more surreal for you. You’re actually a voice in the upcoming animated parrot flick Rio 2?
Yes, I am! I can’t reveal the role just yet, but I can say that it’s very cool. And I was a big fan of the first Rio—I loved the storyline, the animation, everything about it. And Rio is gonna be amazing. I also co-wrote the opening theme for the movie, which I’m really excited about. But I can’t say anymore than that right now, though.
Have you been offered any actual film roles yet? You really do belong on the silver screen.
Well, thank you. Since you said that, I’ll definitely do some more investigating! But yes, I’ve definitely had some offers. But right now, I’m really focused on the next album, The Electric Lady.
Does Cindi Mayweather return as the central character? Or is a new heroine introduced?
Well, it definitely is a conceptual album, a suite in spirit and size, and a continuation of—and followup to—The ArchArndroid. So I really tried to bring even more innovation to it. And I have guest appearances, as well, that are really incredible, and that I’m really excited about. Like the first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which is an acronym, and it features none other than Erykah Badu.

An acronym? For what, exactly?
Umm, it has a deeper meaning. But I don’t wanna reveal what the acronym is. I want people to jam to it right now, to just dance. That’s all I can say.
Is there a wild new show coming together for the album?
Oh, a totally new one. Absolutely. We’re working on that as we speak. And we just got through doing Coachella, and we had two amazing nights. I really enjoyed Coachella, the people, the energy, it was just an amazing festival. But we are definitely picking out new things for our live performance—it'll be something special, something totally new.
Is your new song “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” on the new disc?
Well, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” has been recorded, and that’s all I can say about it. And why I wrote the song is, it was just something I experienced one Monday afternoon—cool glasses, lemonade, and a picture of Dorothy Dandridge. So it definitely pays homage to her, although that’s not my focus on The Electric Lady.
How was working with Erykah?
Oh, she is amazing. I talk to her every other day, and she’s truly one of my best friends. And before we did the song, she actually came down and we talked and had conversations. Lots of conversations, girl conversations, artist conversations. She’s a professional, and a powerful female like myself, so she’s definitely ... definitely particular, just like me. I mean, we just have a lot in common, in terms of what we want to sing, what we want to say, even the roles in the song.
And you also just signed on as the new face of both Sonos and Cover Girl. Your ads are everywhere.
Well, again, they reached out to us. Which was amazing. And I love music, so I actually already had the Sonos sound system throughout all of our studio. So Sonos reached out, and I think the campaign was amazing. And it highlighted everybody in Wondaland, because those are all my real friends that you saw in the video – peole from the Wondaland Arts Society and artists from the Wondaland Arts Society label. And we all really love music, and we consider ourselves to be experienced sound architects, and we like to control the music that’s going on around us and recreate that experience or our friends. So Sonos was a great sponsorship, any way you look at it. And as for Cover Girl, they were interested in the things that make me unique and all those things that make me who I am, and that might make me a role model for young girls. So I hope I can have a platform where I can redefine what it means to be an African American living in today’s society. I want to challenge the preconceptions. So I was really honored that they would give me a chance there, and I’m honored to partner with people who share my views.

Janelle Monae performs at Made in America 2012. Click here to see the gallery. (PHOTO: Christopher Victorio/PureVolume)

It was weird to see you in that Sonos commercial, minus your customary saddle shoes, just dancing away in bare feet ...
Ha! Well, that’s how I always am—if I have grass under my feet, I just can’t resist it!

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